WOW – Women of the World Festival 2015

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‘Our life experience – that’s our expertise’ – Jude Kelly

I have so much to say about my experience at The Women of the World Festival this weekend, but in the interest of a) getting some sleep, b) catching up with university work, and c) making up for the meals I had to skip; I’ve tried to be as brief as possible (although condensing it down feels like extinguishing an already exploding firework).

The Women of the World Festival (WOW) was founded five years ago by Jude Kelly, the artistic director of The Southbank Centre. It is designed to champion the artistry, activism and achievements of women from all walks of life. I had previously attended stand alone events, but I had never attended the entire weekend. This year, I felt it was time to immerse myself in to everything the Festival had to offer.

(Before I forget: editor, friend, and all round excellent human, Louisa, spoke at the Cambridge WOW festival on Sunday about the creation of the Belle Jar website. Read her blog here!)

On Friday 6th March at 9:30am, Jude Kelly opened the festival by reminding us even if we don’t consider ourselves to be activists, by turning up to WOW; we had become active in the campaign for gender equality. She then began the festivities with the first event: ANNIE LENNOX IN CONVERSATION. I was so excited to see Lennox speak, that I arrived 30 minutes before the Southbank Centre opened. Turns out, ‘Sweet Dreams’ are made of £2.50 cappuccinos, a lot of patience, and thorough time keeping.

Lennox joked that when she was younger she thought she couldn’t be a feminist because she was ‘too vain’. She wanted to be aligned with the cause, but often felt intimidated and ‘not good enough’ because she enjoyed expressing herself by wearing make-up and high heels. What a relief it was to hear someone, who I regard as beacon of hope and power, admit that they too had experienced anxiety about their own place within a feminist world. Jude Kelly kindly pointed out this was a typical reaction from young women to feminism, and arguments which state feminists shouldn’t wear make-up, or be feminine, are an irrelevant distraction from the true feminist cause: to gain equality.

Lennox opened up about her personal life, and shared her belief that women naturally feel a lot of pain, emotionally and physically. She revealed her first experience of motherhood – giving birth to a still-born son – was the ultimate combination of these two types of pain. I felt a terrible urge to cry when she said this. What stopped my tear ducts from leaking, however, was the way she explained what this personal tragedy had taught her.

It had opened her eyes to the tragedy of every day life, and cemented her own personal belief that she must help, she must make a difference to women in a less fortunate situation. She channelled her pain in to activism, and as a result she raised immense funds and awareness around the issues of poverty, HIV and AIDS. Jude Kelly summarised Lennox’s outlook beautifully:

‘You must realise your own potential, then you can open doors for other people.’

Feeling high on life after hearing Annie Lennox share her experience and insight, I stayed to watch Jude Kelly chair the BLURRED LINES discussion with news presenter Kirsty Wark, journalist Hannah Pool and BBC Newsnight editor Ian Katz. Their discussion considered the impact of misogynist behaviour on the internet, and how women in the public eye are generally trolled, and criticised more violently than men. The debate also highlighted the Campaign4Consent, which was set up by seventeen year old school girl Lily and her friends, in order to get the issue of consent on to the UK school curriculum.

In the queue for the next event, WOW QUESTION TIME, I met another girl who had come to WOW by herself. We struck up a conversation, and after introducing ourselves properly, realised we shared the same first name (Kate, not Bob). I don’t usually buy in to the fate/mystical universe thing; but I’ll admit that meeting another Kate at an event which made me want to burst with feminist glee is pretty cosmic. Unfortunately, due to excessive interest, we didn’t get in to the event, so we attended a discussion entitled THE WOMEN WE LEAVE BEHIND instead.

This conversation centred around the women and girls who live in countries where western foreign policy, interventions, and civil unrest are consistently detrimental to women’s rights. The insight of panellist Feruz Werede, a human rights activist, was particularly poignant. She spoke about the human rights abuses that are affecting women and girls in Eritrea, the country where she was born. This abuse includes trafficking of girls and women, and harvesting their organs for sale. I felt wretched with ignorance. Why wasn’t this being reported in the international media? Was anyone trying to help these women? Feruz explained that Eritrea’s laws and government are intensely secretive, and getting aid in and out of the country is not always possible. Fortunately, organisations like Equality Now are trying to put activism and legislation together, in order to help the women and girls who face atrocities like this, and to bring closer attention to the global issue of violence against women both at home, and abroad.

‘Often, the media is amoral at best, or immoral at worst, with regards to women’ – Jude Kelly

The next events on my agenda were about WOMEN IN JOURNALISM (which bestowed me with a FREE goodie bag) and HOW TO WIN AT B/VLOGGING. It was after these events that I realised it was almost 4pm, and I hadn’t eaten since 7am. I nearly passed out from the shock of skipping lunch. In the 30 minute intervals between events, I had only managed to scoff a few cappuccinos, and a sneaky Snickers (Yes, I eat the chocolate that advertising companies aim at male audiences, because I’m BREAKING GENDER BOUNDARIES – and I love peanuts). Ultimately, I got so desperate for food, that I paid an excessive amount of money for exquisitely toasted bread, and delightfully seasoned fungi (aka mushrooms on toast). Note to self: Next year, bring a shit tonne of snacks.

After a hasty dinner, I concluded my first day at WOW back in the hub with Jude Kelly, who was interviewing broadcaster Lauren Laverne and HSBC’s most senior lawyer, Sandie Okoro. I enjoyed Lauren’s stories of being in a band, and trying to ignore sexism in the music industry by cracking jokes, and thinking of herself as Iggy Pop. Sandie Okoro revealed that when she was seven, she told her school teacher she wanted to be a judge and the teacher cruelly replied: ‘little black girls from Balham don’t become judges’. Okoro urged the audience to ‘Think big. Ambition is free’, and her own advancement in the legal business has proved this. I left the Southbank Centre feeling full of potential.

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After spending Friday night boring my sisters to death about everything I’d seen in my first 24 hours of festivities, I awoke on Saturday 7th March full of fire, and ready for another day at WOW. I attended the MAN UP OR MAN DOWN workshop, which discussed sexist language and how to combat it. As well as being informative, the banter was top notch. The girls and women in my group were laid back and supportive. I didn’t feel judged or like I’d ‘got it wrong’ – a notion which many of the speakers addressed when they were speaking about female potential. They were keen to remind us that this is how patriarchy encourages women to feel – and that even acting as an equal often feels like ‘misbehaving’ (Jude Kelly).

I flew from one language based event to another: HOW TO GET PUBLISHED, chaired by author, founder of The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and all round literary hero, Kate Mosse. Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project was also involved in Mosse’s talk, and both women provided fascinating and useful insight in to writing and publishing both non-fiction, and fiction books. Mosse urged us to claim the title of ‘writer’ regardless of a publishing deal, and to write every day, to work at it, to normalise it; to make it less intimidating. Female perspectives and female stories are important, and the job of the female (or male) writer is to have their ‘eyes down, on the page’, sharing those personal experiences.

Next on my agenda was a CONSENT WORKSHOP, which was introduced by Laura Bates, before being led by Susuana Antubam, the National Women’s Officer for NUS. Susuana spoke about the I Heart Consent campaign which she is currently running in universities and colleges, and we had group discussions about the true definition of consent, and the numerous issues surrounding rape culture.

When I was at school (only 6/7 years ago), no-one was talking about the issues of consent in sex education. I learnt about the biology of sex – but that was it. It seems ridiculous that I didn’t know I could say ‘No’, and not have to justify myself. I discussed this with two girls in my group who were studying for their GCSEs, and I spoke to a woman who was attending the workshop so she would be able to give this information to her grand-daughter. The workshop  solidified my belief that women are now feeling brave enough to say ‘no’.

I wanted to stay for the evening Self Defence Class, but after skipping more meals in order to attend the maximum amount of events; I bailed, got the train home, cooked a steak, and sank a bottle of wine.

On Sunday 8th March, I awoke with that fiery excitement still burning inside me (and without a hang-over!) and gunned it back to The Southbank. It was International Women’s Day, so everything felt like it had an extra-feminist edge. I went to EMILY DICKINSON: PRESENTED BY POET IN THE CITY, which involved a panel discussion about Dickinson’s poetry, and live readings of selected poems from the glorious Juliet Stevenson. I briefly met with my friend and fellow Belle Jar writer, Juliette, before she went to THE EDUCATION EMERGENCY event and I attended the BEING A MAN talk.

The panel included poet Anthony Anaxagorou, writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun, psychotherapist John McKeown, and artistic director of The Red Room, Topher Campbell. They spoke about the aversion to emotion that is encouraged within masculinity, and patriarchal culture, and the way this damages men and boys of all different ethnicities and sexual orientations. Whilst there were no concrete conclusions on how to solve negative, inherited masculine attitudes; the efforts of the panellists in their professional and personal lives, were encouraging and uplifting.

I made my way to The Queen Elizabeth Hall to see YOU’VE BEEN FRAMED, a discussion about WOMEN’S MENTAL HEALTH. This was the most revelatory discussion of the weekend. Artist Bobby Baker, and Chair of National Hearing Voices Network, Jacqui Dillon, spoke at length about their personal experiences of being diagnosed with mental illness. Whilst both women were inspirational, I found Jacqui’s story particularly poignant. Jacqui was born in to a family that associated with a paedophile ring, and consequently, suffered sexual abuse from an extremely young age. When she reached her twenties and decided to seek professional help, but she was told by psychiatrists she was ‘psychotic’, and had imagined the abuse. They refused to accept Jacqui’s psychosis was a natural reaction to intense, and prolonged trauma.

Fortunately, Jacqui eventually found professionals who were willing to accept the truth; which is why she is now able to tell her story to strangers like me. Jacqui and Bobby’s discussion highlighted something crucial: psychiatrists and societies often re-frame people’s natural responses to trauma, and diagnose them as mental illness. They pathologise or medicalise natural reactions. They don’t always consider the social context may be the true issue which needs addressing, not the reaction of the individual.

My weekend at WOW was coming to a close, so I took a seat at the final discussion and caught up with Juliette again. The discussion came in two parts, firstly, Jude Kelly offered her thoughts on the subject WHY WOMEN STAY. We stay, quite simply, because there is nowhere else to go. Women across the globe are immobilised in so many ways. In her introduction to Laura Bates’ book Everyday Sexism, Sarah Brown states that ‘women who lead, read’. Two thirds of the world’s women can’t read – how can they be expected to get anywhere without a basic education? Jude Kelly urged us to keep calling out sexism, to keep being exhausted and irritating in our own circles, because the world is slowly starting to realise that empowering women, means empowering the world.

The second part of the discussion, entitled FUTURE FEMALE: THE ECONOMIC CASE FOR GENDER EQUALITY ACROSS THE GLOBE, featured a live Skype session with Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and a further discussion with Jude Kelly and BBC Radio 1’s Gemma Cairney. Christine insisted gender equality matters so much, because it makes economic sense. She also raised the following point:

‘We used to be called the fair sex, but for the fair sex, it’s a very unfair situation’.

This unfair situation was then addressed by campaigner Eloise Todd, who was promoting the newly launched Poverty is Sexist Campaign. This is one of the many organisations dedicated to improving women and girl’s economic independence across the globe. Finally, Christine answered Gemma’s question: What three pieces of advice would you give to your twenty-five year old self? Christine’s reply was simple:

  1. Grit your teeth and smile.
  2. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
  3. If you’ve tried everything, and it doesn’t work, leave; they don’t deserve you.

The applause at the end of the discussion was deafening, and I was both elated and exhausted to have been witness to such a glorious Festival.

I’ve spent the last two days typing out just a fraction of what I encountered this weekend at WOW. Some of you might be wondering: ‘Err, why?’ Well, this weekend has proved to me there is an immense power behind the sharing of personal experience, the sharing of statistics and information, and the sharing of art and creativity. Whether this is shared in the form of debate, lectures, or a bit of banter; I believe by spreading the word, signing the petitions, and documenting the speeches; we can help alter negative perspectives on feminism.

The power of the individual story is only as powerful as the individuals who listen to, and re-tell that story. That’s what my weekend at WOW helped to re-enforce. I’m already looking forward to next year (and I’m definitely not paying fifteen quid for fungi avec wheat ever again).

P.S. For anyone who wants to hate on this by saying ‘Women get their own Festival, what about men?!’ – You can attend the Being a Man Festival (BAM) later in the year. Give me a shout when you do, I’d like to come with!

P.P.S. This post is definitely the opposite of brief. Oops.

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One thought on “WOW – Women of the World Festival 2015

  1. Wow. Pun not intended, I swear to god, but this really is my current reaction to this fantastic post: wow. (Seriously, when I use puns, you’ll KNOW when it’s intended due to how awful it is.) I could tell before actually reading it that I knew how super passionate you were about it from the 2,500+ word count. The second indication (and this is something I’ve done on many blog posts, especially ones about Paul McGann or Judge Dredd) was how you began it by saying you would keep it short. Ah, the number of times I’ve begun a blog with those words and only afterwards realise how much I lied to myself. For a blog like this though, I’m certainly not complaining.

    As someone who had no clue about this festival, you’ve really grabbed my interest, both by how much detail you covered as to what it is, what kind of workshops and discussions that occur at these events, and just how much you really, really enjoyed it. Seeing Annie Lennox talk about her own experiences sounds especially amazing and enlightening, especially for her honesty about being reluctant to be labelled as a feminist earlier on in life, and knowing that many of our heroes do have the same anxieties and worries as the rest of us is always important to know.

    It’s also shocking just how much sexism there still is worldwide and how important feminism is to this day (2/3 of the world’s women can’t read? I don’t think I have the words to describe just how shocked I am about that), and the Being A Man discussion sounds like a great reminder that feminism is equally important to men and women.

    I usually enjoy reading your blog, but I absolutely love this post. It’s clear, heavily detailed, but most of all, I just love how much your enthusiasm for this event really shows throughout. Moments like seeing one of your heroes on stage or meeting a complete stranger and just having a really great conversation over something you both enjoy are things that I can certainly relate to (it’s one of the key reasons why I love being a massive geek so much), and I’m really curious to attend a WOW festival the next time it’s on. Also, if the Being a Man festival is as interesting as the discussion sounded, I’d love to check that out.

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